The development of Blue Christmas services, aimed at comforting and offering hope to those who mourn over the holidays, has been a fascinating and helpful movement. Recently, at the church I pastor, we have had a staggering rate of death. Within a week of Thanksgiving, we said goodbye to an eighty-six-year old man who had spent his life building churches in Maryland and also to an eighteen-year-old woman who died tragically after contracting an illness but who left a tremendous impact through simply loving everyone.
As a pastor, I get nervous that busy celebrations of the coming season will not allow for adequate pastoral care for newly grieving families. How can ugly sweater parties and Christmas dinners adequately minister to people when their lives feel shattered and torn apart? This concern does not even begin to address the families who have suffered death and loss in previous months or years and whose grief reappears each December as predictably as Ebenezer Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Past. My father died December 6, 2004, so I know that nary a holiday comes without remembering what growing up was like with Dad, what all has been snatched from my family by his death, and the difficult reminder that my daughters never got to celebrate Christmas with him. Christmas—once a holiday of pure joy—has become an occasion to which grief invites itself.
While there are many tools that the church has turned to in order to minister to the various life situations during the holiday period, there is one tool that lingers, reminding us how we can gather grief, pain, joy, and expectation all together at once: Advent. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the gift that Advent can be to the local church, but the tension of Advent—living in that which is already (the incarnation of God with us in Jesus Christ) and that which is not yet (the second coming and full reign of Christ) has become all the more relevant to me as I have walked alongside grieving families in the face of death.
Lectionary Advent texts testify to our tension. The first Sunday of Advent for this year featured an apocalyptic text from Luke (21:25–36) that spoke to the anguish, perplexity, terror, and apprehension we feel in our world, followed by an invitation to “lift up our heads” because “our redemption is near!” This is a text that invites us to prepare for the coming of Christ while being really honest about the tensions we feel in our guts, souls, and lives. The second Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1–6) reminded us that the Messiah will make crooked paths straight and rough ways smooth. The third Sunday (Luke 3:7–18) reminds us that one more powerful than a baptizer is yet to come! The final Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:39–45, 46–55) will remind us of God’s blessing and favor upon the weak.
These texts allow us to include both those who anticipate Christmas with great joy as well as those for whom this season is rife with both immediate and ancient pain. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Bonhoeffer put it like this: “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
Advent is a great celebration for the church that is rooted in the ancient Christian calendar. It offers us resources to minister to both those celebrating as well as those who are struggling. The tensions of our world are mirrored in the texts of the Lectionary. But the tensions of this world are given hope in Advent: the baby we await at Christmas, we are reminded, will come again and make all things right. Acknowledging our yearning for the coming of Christ into our world’s tension sets us up to celebrate Christmas well, ministering to both the best and worst of the lives where our people currently find themselves.
Celebrating is not appropriate for everyone—but Advent is.
This year, in my church alone we are working through not only the deaths I’ve already mentioned but also a middle-aged woman suffering a shocking heart attack, no fewer than four people with Stage IV cancer diagnoses, a family who needed to take in two adolescent relatives out of the blue, a man laid off without warning and given only a week of severance pay, and on and on. Celebrating is not appropriate for everyone—but Advent is. Advent gifts us peace, promotes love, points us toward hope, and works to gift us joy.
I pray that, as you encounter the themes and rhythms of Advent this year, you find a tool that helps your people experience the Christ who came and will come again. And may it give you peace, love, hope, and joy.